Police and officials with the office of Children, Youth and Families are searching tonight for a woman whose 5-day-old baby is in critical need of treatment for jaundice.
The mother, Jamie Nesta, 39, and her son, Elijah, were confronted around 12:30 p.m. today in Shadyside by a CYF caseworker who was required to take her son into emergency custody on Wednesday.
Ms. Nesta, with her son in hand, ran from the caseworker and in the process dropped the child's Wallabee III Power Unit medical blanket, which is used to help treat jaundiced babies when they are sent home.
Without the blanket, the baby could suffer irreversible brain damage, according to doctors at Children's Hospital. Jaundice is caused by high rates of bilirubin in a child's blood. The disease causes a yellowing of the skin or eyes.
The blanket device, about the size of a small VCR, helps eliminate bilirubin in the baby's blood by emitting a special light onto the baby's skin that effectively combats jaundice.
The blanket, which needs to be plugged into an outlet to function, can be slipped into another blanket or directly on the baby to help fight jaundice.
"If the bilirubin levels go too high, it causes permanent brain damage," said Dr. Janet Squires, a pediatrician and the director of the Child Advocacy Program at Children's Hospital. "This definitely borders on child endangerment. These are very sad circumstances and this baby may need immediate medical attention."
Dr. Squires said the child may survive for a couple of days or even the rest of his life without the blanket, but that the child needs to be found quickly so that blood tests can be done to determine if the baby is in danger of brain damage.
"What is scary is that we have a baby out there and we don't have its blood levels, so doctors can't decide what to do," Dr. Squires said.
Police described Ms. Nesta as a 5-foot 9-inch tall woman, weighing about 110 pounds with dark brown hair. Detectives attempted to find Ms. Nesta at her last known address on Sarah Street on the South Side, but she was not at that location.
It was possible Ms. Nesta was staying at a shelter, police said.
Emergency custody of the baby was authorized Wednesday, but it was unclear last night why that authorization was issued. CYF officials could not be reached for comment.
Anyone with information is asked to call city police at 412-323-7800.
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In Starkeisha Brown's small circle of South Los Angeles, it was no secret that her 5-year-old son was the victim of abuse.
Friends and family said they suspected that Brown beat the boy -- and a few even witnessed it. They talked among themselves about what to do, and confronted Brown on at least one occasion.
But no one called authorities.
County child-welfare officials didn't find out about his cigarette burns, whip marks and other injuries until a stranger at a Metro Rail Green Line platform called a county hotline earlier this month after the boy told her: "She put my hand on top of the stove."
The boy's plight has sparked widespread outrage, with the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors ordering an investigation into why officials couldn't do more to help him.
But the case has also highlighted what experts say is significant problem: family, friends and neighbors suspecting child abuse but choosing not to report it.
Such problems are particularly present in neighborhoods like the one where the Browns lived, where distrust of police and child-protection workers is high and residents worry that calling authorities could make problems worse.
"I don't think it is that they are colluding with the abuser," said Carole Shauffer, executive director of the Youth Law Center, a San Francisco-based public interest law firm. "For the most part, it's fear of what's going to happen, fear of nothing happening, fear of collateral consequences, and denial, that 'it's none of my business, and it can't be as bad as it seems to me.' "
Authorities allege that Brown's son was subjected to extreme abuse for more than a year, including being malnourished, burned with cigarette butts on his body and genitals, hung from a doorjamb by his wrists and whipped, left to sit in his own urine and feces and severely burned on his hands, which were held to a hot stove. Brown and two other women have been charged with child abuse and torture.
Friends and family said they had suspicions but hoped they were unfounded.
The boy's great-grandmother, Barbara Moreno, said she noticed cuts, scratches and bumps on him, but dropped the subject when he told her the injuries were caused by a fall and a dog attack.
"Sometimes you turn your head," said Vivian Daniels, a family friend who about a month ago finally asked Brown about the bruises and scratches on her son's body. She said she didn't call police or the Department of Children and Family Services because she feared it would make things worse for the boy -- and perhaps even for her and her children.
"It's tit-for-tat," Daniels said. "In South-Central, we don't do that. I'm just telling you how it is."
Daniels said she finally decided to talk to Brown about her suspicions around the time she tried to throw an impromptu party for the boy's 5th birthday.
She wrote his name on a birthday cake and hoped he could celebrate at her house with her daughter, whose birthday was around the same time in May. She went to Brown's apartment to ask if her son could go to the party.
"Hell, nah," Brown replied, according to Daniels.
Around the same time, Daniels said she saw Brown "whip the baby butt naked." She said her 11-year-old daughter, Rayonna, had seen the boy hung from a door by his shirt and forced to eat on his hands and knees "like a dog," she said.
"We had heard that the little boy got messed up," Daniels said.
In response to the case, community activists on Friday canvassed the neighborhood around 110th and Figueroa streets, where Brown recently lived with the boy, with fliers that read: "Break the Silence on Child Abuse in South L.A.! Help Make Sure a Starkeisha Brown Torture Case Never Happens Again."
"We have seen time and time again that people say, 'I've seen child abuse, I've heard it, I've heard screams, but I do nothing,' " said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable. "People are so reluctant to speak out on it."
Hutchinson and others said suspicion and fear of authorities runs deep in parts of South L.A. -- and that extends beyond the police to social service agencies and other public providers. They said some people are afraid that calling authorities could end up making the family situation worse -- particularly if the child is taken into foster care. Others fear authorities might end up checking on them.
Hutchinson said residents are reluctant to call authorities in such cases because of a strong belief that it's wrong to interfere in the way other parents treat their children.
They "feel that children, no matter what, are really the province of the mother and everything they do is their right and their business," he said. "Someone hears a child screaming, they're not going to say anything because their thinking is that's their child, that's their business."
It took a stranger -- the person on the Green Line platform -- to finally call the county with a tip.
As a result, Brown and the boy were ordered to report June 9 to a children's services office to discuss the abuse allegations. But Brown and her roommate, Krystal Denise Matthews, left the boy with a stranger on the street and instead took a healthy-looking 4-year-old to the meeting, trying to pass him off as Brown's son. They also brought a girl, about 6, authorities said.
The stranger felt uneasy with the 5-year-old, who looked sickly and injured. He asked people nearby what to do, and someone called authorities. County officials have called for a broad-based investigation of the abuse, and Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Gloria Molina earlier this week sponsored an ordinance that would better streamline communication among more than half a dozen county and state agencies that all had information relevant to the boy's situation.
In 2005, county child-welfare officials investigated tips that Brown's son had been abused but closed the file after finding the allegations inconclusive.
Brown is a known gang member who as a minor served time in the California Youth Authority for battery. As an adult she was convicted of robbery and petty theft. In March 2007 she was the subject of an arrest warrant for a parole violation, but authorities could not find her.
Molina and others have noted, however, that she still managed to receive welfare benefits during that time. Abuse like that suffered by the 5-year-old boy is "so common," said Jorja Leap, a professor at UCLA and an expert in crisis intervention and trauma response.
Leap said that in cases like this, the adults who do not report them are dealing with "denial, denial, denial. They absolutely, positively do not want to put the pieces together because it means they would have to do something."
Anyone interested in making donations for the 5-year-old boy can contact Michael Wrice of the county Department of Children and Family Services at (213) 739-6202.
Boy was subject of '05 claim
5-year-old in abuse case was reported at risk, but L.A. County authorities found evidence inconclusive.
By Ari B. Bloomekatz and Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
June 19, 2008
More than a year before a boy was allegedly subjected to extreme abuse and torture, Los Angeles County officials in 2005 investigated allegations that he suffered from neglect and was at "substantial risk." But officials ultimately determined the claims to be inconclusive, according to county records obtained by The Times.
At the time, the boy's mother, Starkeisha Brown, had been arrested on suspicion of stealing a bracelet and other items at a Macy's department store with the child in tow. The boy stayed with his grandmother while his mother served about nine months in jail -- and the Department of Children and Family Services closed the case file, never returning to check on the boy, the records show.
Brown reunited with him last year, beginning what the Los Angeles Police Department described as "unbearable psychological and physical abuse," including cigarette burns on his body and genitals, near-starvation and beatings.
The details, contained in a DCFS report prepared for Los Angeles County supervisors this week, prompted some officials to ask why social workers didn't have more contact with the family after that initial visit.
"When I read what happened, it seemed like the system broke down on a number of levels, whether it's the criminal justice system, the welfare system or child services," Councilwoman Janice Hahn said. "It seems to me there were a lot of red flags."
Hahn, whose district includes the South Los Angeles neighborhood where the abuse allegedly occurred, said the boy's plight speaks to a larger problem.
"I couldn't believe it," added Supervisor Yvonne Burke. "Our system has to be just tighter. . . . This is a time when we really have to be vigilant. We need to figure out how we can get the ability to find and track down these people."
Police said Brown, 24, and her live-in girlfriend Krystal Matthews, 21, committed the bulk of the abuse. According to one allegation, the 5-year-old was hung by his hands and wrists from a door jamb and whipped with some sort of leash or chain.
The women were arrested over the weekend and each charged with one count of torture and conspiracy, as well as other charges of child abuse, corporal injury to a child and dissuading a witness. Brown's and Matthews' bails were set at $1.1 million and $1.08 million, respectively. If convicted, they face 25 years to life in prison.
La Tanya Monikue Jones, 26, a baby-sitter who authorities said disfigured the boy's hands by burning them on a stove, was also arrested this week and charged with conspiracy to dissuade a witness, corporal injury to a child and child abuse.
Authorities said Jones let her 4-year-old son and her daughter, about 6, go with Brown and Matthews to a meeting with DCFS officials last week in an attempt to trick them into thinking there was no abuse in their home.
DCFS officials have declined to comment on specifics of the case, citing confidentiality rules, but said they get involved only if a problem is reported.
But the confidential report paints a much more detailed and complex picture of the agency's involvement with Brown and her son.
Los Angeles County child welfare authorities first met the boy in November 2005, when officials received at least one report on a hotline expressing concern about his welfare. Details of the call were not contained in the report.
About that time, the county also got a call about the boy from Brown's parole agent. Brown was in custody after being arrested on suspicion of shoplifting, and someone was going to have to look after the boy.
Brown had been released on parole about four months earlier after serving more than a year in prison for robbing an elderly woman and was again on her way to jail. Investigators found the claims of neglect to be "inconclusive" and released the boy to his grandmother, according to the report.
The boy's grandmother told investigators she intended to become his legal guardian, the DCFS report said. But Brown took the child back sometime after she was released from prison in January 2007, according to authorities.
Police detectives say Brown then subjected the boy to ritualistic abuse and torture while evading law enforcement and receiving welfare benefits.
Three months after Brown was released from prison in January 2007, her parole was revoked and a bench warrant was issued for her arrest. Authorities apparently could not find her -- even though she was receiving welfare benefits at the time.
Supervisor Gloria Molina said the boy's plight would be the first case of the Children's Special Investigation Unit, which was set up to independently review and scrutinize DCFS cases.
Molina said that city, state and county agencies were all "pointing the finger at each other" over who was to blame.
According to the confidential report, Brown received treatment from the Department of Mental Health about 10 years ago, and a substance abuse assessment was conducted with a community agency shortly after her child was born.
"However, no services were provided as the mother did not follow through," the report stated.
Jones, the baby-sitter, had lengthy dealings with DCFS, according to the report. When she was arrested for possession of narcotics in March 2003, she left her then 11-month-old baby at a hotel with a stranger. The baby was taken into protective custody two days after the arrest for "caretaker absence/incapacity" but later released.
Both of Jones' children are in protective custody, police said.
Matthews also has a criminal history, including convictions for assault with a deadly weapon and forgery. In May, she got into a fight with her younger brother, slashing him on the face with a box-cutter. She pleaded guilty and was released on three years' probation.
DCFS officials would not respond to direct questions about the abuse of Starkeisha Brown's son, citing confidentiality, but said there had been no open case involving him and that they were alerted to the most recent alleged abuse only early this month.
According to the report, on June 3, Brown, another woman and Brown's son were at a Green Line train station when the child told another person, "She put my hand on top of the stove." The person who called DCFS said the boy "appeared hungry and stated that he had not eaten."
After they received the tip, child welfare officials made three attempts to contact Brown and Matthews at their residence. In the first instance, they were given an incorrect address. After they had the right location, they made two unannounced visits but were unable to find the women and left a note.
The women eventually showed up at the DCFS office in Compton for a scheduled interview. According to authorities, the women first dropped off the 5-year-old with a stranger and took Jones' 4-year-old son to the interview.
Hahn said she was going to urge supervisors to take a thorough look at how the county protects its children.
"We hear problem after problem after problem. When is it going to be enough? It's a shame it takes something like this to make us hold departments accountable," Hahn said. "It is up to us to protect our children, and we failed this child terribly."
2 South L.A. women concocted scheme to hide torturous child abuse, authorities say
The pair allegedly tried to pass off another boy as the son of one of the women during an agency interview. The actual son may be permanently disfigured from stove burns, officials say.
By Andrew Blankstein and Ari B. Bloomekatz, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
June 17, 2008
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For two years, authorities said, a mother subjected her son to what veteran detectives described as shocking, ritualistic abuse.
The 5-year-old was hung by his hands and wrists from a door jamb and beaten with some sort of leash or chain, police said. He was routinely denied food and water, burned with cigarettes on his body and genitals, and left to sit in his own urine and feces.
In the past few weeks, his hands were held to a hot stove, according to Capt. Fabian Lizarraga, causing injuries that may leave them permanently disfigured.
Starkeisha Brown, the boy's 24-year-old mother, allegedly committed the acts for about two years without detection -- until a bizarre series of events last week.
"It causes you to question the humanity of some people," Assistant Police Chief Earl Paysinger said about the abuse. "Whether they have a heart or a soul."
It started with an anonymous tip to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services saying there was a problem at the South Los Angeles apartment near 110th and Figueroa streets.
On Monday, June 9, Brown and her live-in girlfriend, Krystal Matthews, 19, were ordered to a children services office along with the boy to discuss the allegation of abuse.
Instead, the pair left the abused boy with a complete stranger and attended the meeting with a healthy-looking 4-year-old they said was Brown's son, along with a girl of about 6, authorities said. Police said they are trying to determine those children's identities.
They told the stranger, " 'Watch him for us.' They said 'We'll be right back,' " Lizarraga said.
While the women were being interviewed, the stranger who had been asked to watch the boy started asking people in the neighborhood what he should do with the 5-year-old, who looked sickly and injured. Eventually someone called authorities.
Officials got word of the boy's condition as they were interviewing Brown and Matthews and began asking more pointed questions and challenging the pair's story, Lizarraga said.
Halfway through the interview the two women sprinted from the office, abandoning the 4-year-old and his sister at the office, police said.
"They realize that no one is buying their ruse," said Lt. Vincent Neglia of the LAPD's Abused Child Unit, and "they bug out."
Lizarraga said it was fortunate that the stranger sought help. He "had the sense that something was not right, that the situation he had been placed in was not right," the captain said.
Had Brown brought in her own son, the social worker would have seen a child with a pot belly suggestive of severe malnutrition, burns across his body in various stages of healing, bruises, and badly damaged and burned hands, Neglia said. Some scars appeared to be fairly old.
"This wasn't just one big beating," Neglia said. "You can tell by the different stages of injuries that this was prolonged."
Police said the most severe malnourishment occurred in the last two to three months.
Authorities launched a hunt for Brown and Matthews while authorities took the child to a hospital where he remains.
The boy was in guarded condition through last week, but is beginning to show signs of improvement, authorities said.
Matthews was arrested Friday and Brown turned herself in to police on Saturday.
They were arrested on multiple charges, including suspicion of torture, and the pair are scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday.
Both women have a history of crime and violence. According to court documents, Matthews was sentenced to three years probation earlier this year for assault with a deadly weapon.
The boy's mother served a total of two and a half years in prison for two separate convictions: one for felony robbery of an elderly woman in 2003 and later for petty theft, when she and another woman stole a bracelet and other items from a Macy's department store.
Most recently, Brown was incarcerated from March 2006 to January 2007. During that period, the boy was in the custody of relatives, authorities said.
Police said the bulk of the abuse appeared to begin when Brown was released on probation.
Neglia said that Brown's probation officer recently had a hard time locating her because she was not living at her listed address.
Children services officials, citing confidentiality rules, would not disclose why the boy was returned to his mother after she was released from prison and whether appropriate checks on the boy's welfare were made, given that she was on probation.
DCFS spokesperson Stuart Riskin said there were about 160,000 calls each year to the agency's child protection hotline.
In the South Los Angeles neighborhood where Brown and Matthews lived with the boy, neighbors said they were shocked to hear of the abuse and some said they were angered it had not been reported earlier.
"Everybody's furious," said Katherine Irvin, who recently moved into an adjacent house she said was abandoned by a group of men. "They must've heard something."
Detectives said Monday that they were still trying to determine why a mother would so badly abuse her son.
"So far we have not come up with the answer," Lizarraga said. "Our victim was not on anybody's radar, either law enforcement or DCFS. He wasn't in the system; there was no recent [reported] abuse that could be seen," he said.
Since reports of the abuse became public, dozens of people have called police and social service agencies looking for ways to help the boy, authorities said. One elderly woman called police to see if she could donate her most recent Social Security check, authorities said.
Those interested in contributing can contact Michael Wrice with the DCFS at 213-739-6202.